Having negotiations just over rules will require flexibility by members because it will be much harder for members to return home and clearly point to “gains” from WTO changes. In many places, adjustments to specific provisions could even lead to short term challenges. But without any way to address legitimate demands by many members to more accurately reflect the situation in the global trade regime in 2018 and beyond, the system itself is under increasing threat. We have forgotten how important the WTO has become to the business world. It operates like air. It is only when it is missing that it becomes obvious how much it was needed. Without creativity and flexibility by all members, the WTO is at risk of evaporating. The focus ought to be on updating the global rule book, rather than increasingly carving up and out smaller and smaller bits of the economy to be tailored for various member interests.
This has been an interesting, mixed, two weeks in trade. On the one hand, the system continues to receive new shocks, particularly from US President Donald Trump. On the other hand, trade integration is also moving forward. The net result continues to highlight the increasingly unsettled global environment. Firms need to focus on how to mitigate the risks facing their business operations.
Let’s start with the bad news. Two separate hearings have wrapped up in Washington. The first focused on product categories for an additional $16 billion in 25% tariff rate hikes against goods coming from China. Regular readers may recall that the Americans first produced a list of items totaling $50 billion for new tariff increases. The list was revised on the basis of hearings. The first $34 billion in tariffs have already gone into force (and were met with retaliation by China on a similar amount). But $16 billion in products were contested, resulting in a new list from the USTR. Now that hearings on the revised list of products has been completed, tariffs can be imposed at any time. Expect them to be announced on Friday (since this seems to be the preferred approach of the Trump administration). These new Section 301 tariffs will likely be met with $16 billion in matched retaliatory tariffs by China.